Troubling ‘Rescues’ of West African Children by International Justice Mission

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A report by the Africa Eye section of the BBC claims to have discovered two documented cases where children were “traumatically and unjustly removed” from their homes and their relatives were wrongly prosecuted as child traffickers.

The cases have ties to work by International Justice Mission, a U.S.-based anti-human trafficking group that started in 1997 and claims to have “protected over 10.4 million vulnerable people from violence.”

The first case took place in a small village in northern Ghana in September 2022. According to the report, Ghanaian police officers sped into the village after midnight and forcibly removed four children and arrested two of the children’s uncles.

Known as Operation Hilltop, the raid was reportedly tied to International Justice Mission. IJM’s model includes working with local law enforcement to rescue victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

The children were separated from their families for over four months and eventually reunited after the Ghanaian social services determined the children had not been trafficked.

Charges against the arrested uncles were also dropped and their names cleared.

According to the BBC account, IJM said its mission had “successfully relocated the four children with their fathers to a safer location.” However, an undercover reporter placed within IJM claimed that internal communications indicated IJM staff had concluded there were “no elements of trafficking” in the Operation Hilltop case.

But IJM disputes the reporting. “In the ‘Hilltop’ case referred to by the BBC, IJM was fully transparent with police, providing them with the facts of the case, including that there was one likely case of child trafficking and three that were not clear,” it said in a press statement.

“The police conducted their own investigations determining there was sufficient evidence before proceeding with the operation and — following information gathered on the operation — police filed trafficking charges against the suspects. IJM Ghana in no way misled the authorities on the facts of this case.”

In the process of investigating Operation Hilltop, Africa Eye discovered a second troubling operation, in which two children were reportedly removed from their home in 2019. Their mother, Mawusi Amlade, was sentenced to five years in prison for child trafficking.

Two years later, after an intervention by Sudreau Global Justice Institute, a partner of IJM, Amlade’s convictions were quashed and she was freed. However, Amlade has not yet been reunited with her children.

Sudreau told BBC it acted independently of IJM.

About the Mawusi Amlade case, IJM said, “IJM, in partnership with government social workers, facilitated and supervised phone communication between Ms. Mawusi and her children while she served her term, to assure her of the children’s safety and whereabouts.”

“IJM and (the Department of Social Welfare) also provided economic support in the form of business start-up equipment to the family to help ensure a safe return for the children. Upon monitoring the home to ensure that Mawusi’s sister was thriving economically with her business, the Department of Social Welfare reintegrated the children with her.”

IJM did not comment about whether the trafficking charges against the mother were proper.

IJM’s work in Ghana focuses on child labor trafficking related to the fishing industry on Lake Volta. IJM issued a 2016 study that found over half of children working on the lake were trafficking victims and approximately one-fifth were 6 years old or younger.

According to IJM’s statement about its work in Ghana, “In 90% of IJM supported cases, children have been reintegrated with family members who have been assessed as safe.”

The undercover reporter embedded at IJM claimed to have recordings showing that IJM sets a target number for victim rescues and prosecutions each year and that IJM staff may be denied pay increases or lose their jobs if they didn’t meet the targets.

IJM denied any penalties to staff for failing to meet targets. “IJM Ghana sets targets in order to evaluate impact so that we can provide the most effective support to authorities to stop child trafficking,” it told BBC.

“No IJM Ghana staff member has been disciplined or dismissed for failure to meet victim relief targets,” it said in a press statement.

Ghana’s team is “led and staffed by Ghanaian nationals who support the Ghanaian authorities to bring trafficked children to safety, help restore survivors’ physical and mental well-being, and stop those responsible for illegally exploiting children.”

In the MinistryWatch database, IJM earns a donor confidence score of 78 out of 100, a one-star financial efficiency rating, and a “C” transparency grade because it does not belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.





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